James Salter Essay - Salter, James (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Salter, James (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Salter, James 1925–

Salter is an American novelist.

James Salter's title, A Sport and a Pastime, is taken from the Koran: "Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime…." His novel attempts to substantiate this view in two senses: the sport and pastime of the lovers are traced diligently and delicately, and their story, under the eye of heaven, is seen as a sport of fate. A modern equivalent for "fate" might be the subconscious that predetermines the end of the story while the conscious is engaged in the sport….

The material is sometimes clinical, but the effect is not, because of the Doppelgaenger technique and the tone of Salter's writing. For the first, possibly Salter was trying to build a profane Trinity, a body of Three, but the immediate effect is simply that the joy of the two lovers—the doomed joy—is so great that it spills over and poignantly envelops an empathic friend.

As for the writing, it obviates the standard café-and-garret tristesse because Salter skillfully uses a pointillist style: little dabs of color in rapid succession that generate emotional and visual rhythm….

Unfortunately the novel forces its tragedy. We know that the affair will probably end painfully, but Salter appends an accident that wrenches the story out of destiny into coincidence.

Still the book is a frequently touching attempt to remake the universe in terms of a passion at its fullest…. (p. 24)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1967 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 25, 1967.

[James Salter's] latest novel, "Light Years," is a very classy book. Its characters drink their Margaux and consume their Brie in a large, white-painted Victorian house on the west bank of the Hudson within sight of the Tappan Zee Bridge. On winter days they return from skating on the frozen river for an early-afternoon repast of chocolate and pears. The principal bathroom contains sponges, soaps the color of tea, books, water-curled copies of Vogue. The husband, Viri, we are told (irrelevantly, as it turns out), is a Jew, "the most elegant Jew, the most romantic, a hint of weariness in his features…." We follow him as he orders custom-made shirts from a wise old Viennese shirtmaker, who says, "I have made some very good shirts, I have made some bad shirts, but altogether I have not failed to learn my art completely." Together they decide on a cloth "that was painted like feathers, feathers of dark green, black, permanganate, another the color of deerskin, and a third the blue of police."

Viri is an architect and he is married to the beautiful Nedra, who has "a wide mouth, the mouth of an actress, thrilling, bright." Nedra wears Irish sweaters, drives into the city in a little green foreign convertible, frequents Zabar's and Bloomingdale's, selects pastries at Leonard's and wins the hearts of shopkeepers. (p. 6)

And so it goes—summers at Amagansett, country dinners, the Russian Tea Room, breathless glimpses of Nureyev and Philip Johnson, elaborate birthday parties for the children, fabulous decorations and lavish presents for Christmas, extravagant Easter-egg hunts—until the marriage breaks up, apparently from Nedra's sheer weariness with the beauty of it all…. We last see [Viri] on an elegiac visit to the old place—now sold—on the banks of the Hudson. All is changed, all have gone—except for a tortoise, unaccountably still there in the woods, that had once belonged to his daughters. "It happens in an instant. It is all one long day, one endless afternoon, friends leave, we stand on the shore."

I find it difficult to imagine the natural audience for "Light Years." Is it meant for devotees of the cult of Scott Fitzgerald? Of Edward FitzGerald? The evocation of the primeval Hudson at the beginning brings to mind the famous passage on Long Island and the Sound in "The Great Gats-by"; the lavish celebration of domestic occasions seems intended to recall the life-style of Dick and Nicole Diver, if not indeed of Gerald and Sara Murphy. On the other hand, the sadness of the hedonism, the wistfulness for things passing, is pure "Rubaiyat." The book provides a feast for lovers of "fine" writing and mysteriously profound comments on life and love. ("In the woman who overwhelms us, there must be nothing familiar.") In one of the dust jacket commendations Salter's style is inexplicably described as "mandarin." What one finds instead is a relentlessly poetic prose, an unearned lyricism that envelops the novel like Muzak. "The air overhead, glittering, infinite, the moist earth beneath—one could taste this earth, its richness, its density, bathe in the air like a stream." On and on.

So much for the foolishness of "Light Years," of which there is a great deal. In fairness it must be said that, as one reads on, the strained lyricism becomes less intrusive, certain episodes emerge with some sharpness, some poignancy: the mugging of an ebullient character named Arnaud Roth, the lung-cancer death of Nedra's drab father, Viri's depression as he succumbs to his second marriage. The love of Viri and Nedra for their daughters is rendered with an intensity that seems emotionally honest, even moving. Occasionally, too, a precisely observed and arresting image breaks through the prevailing Muzak. But chiefly it is the primitive appeal of destinies unfolding in time that carries the reader along, the simple-minded quest for what comes next. This appeal must be admitted and perhaps honored—but with the recognition that it cannot go very far to redeem an overwritten, chi-chi, and rather silly novel. (pp. 6-7)

Robert Towers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 27, 1975.

It is to James Salter's credit that in his new novel [Light Years] he treats a familiar subject in a not altogether familiar manner. The story of Viri and his wife, Nedra, of their gradual parting, their divorce and its aftermath, is told in a series of short, carefully drawn scenes…. Salter renders their world in sparse, suggestive prose, as he expands an account of an unsuccessful marriage into a story about commitment, habit, and change.

Salter goes wrong, however, in his choice of protagonists. Viri and Nedra are simply not interesting or complex enough to warrant all the space he devotes to them…. Salter frequently attempts to give dramatic weight and urgency to rather prosaic moments by intensifying his language, but he seems to be merely inflating the ordinary. Though he tries to make the problems of Viri and Nedra important to us, and though he sometimes succeeds, too often their dissatisfaction comes across as chic despair. (p. 41)

Ronald De Feo, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 9, 1975.

Light Years is what is known as an impressionist novel. That means the prose is pellucid and the net result somehow unclear. From a long series of scenes, closely detailed, nothing very tangible emerges. It all remains atmospheric, ethereal … but impressive nonetheless. The book is about food and drink. Other things happen of course. Sibelius for example blares out of car radios. They are that kind of people. But this middle class American family coming through to us via fine gauze, their swishy friends and attenuated lovers, all these characters are defined by food and drink. Even the cover—pale blues, pea greens, white—reflects this dietary obsession: a wrought iron table on a lawn supports the remains of a cool lunch with wine. In the background a gingerbread house is largely obscured by trees. Rather like the novel is. (p. 23)

Duncan Fallowell, in The Spectator (© 1976 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 8, 1976.